Prison overseer says inmate medical care lacking in private lockups

Though healthcare within the state’s 34 prisons continues to improve, problems persist in contract prisons where the state pays to house its overflow inmate population.

“Little progress has been made in resolving, much less improving,” the care provided to 4,200 inmates in seven contracted lockups, medical receiver Clark Kelso said in a report filed Monday with the three federal judges who oversee the state’s prison system. Four of the seven prisons in Kern and San Bernardino counties are owned by the GEO Group; three are owned by small communities.

California also houses more than 8,000 inmates in private prisons outside the state. To save money, Gov. Jerry Brown wants to move them to the contract prisons within California, a move that Kelso warned could cause even greater problems providing medical care at those facilities.

The worst problems were at GEO’s women’s prison in McFarland, said Joyce Hayhoe, a spokeswoman for Kelso. The prison holds 231 women who are within a year of release. The state pays GEO $9 million a year to house the inmates at McFarland.

According to Kelso’s report, inmates at the GEO prison went without a physician for a month. The report cites all seven contract prisons for a “lack of accountability” and failure to employ qualified physicians to meet their state requirements to have doctors available at least five days a week.


As a result, Kelso said, inmates with health problems have had to be returned to state-operated prisons for their care.

Medical care at the state’s own prisons continue to improve, Kelso’s report notes, and his office is now preparing to return healthcare management to the state, one prison at a time. The independent Office of Inspector General in April deemed inmate care at Folsom State Prison adequate, positioning it for final review by Kelso’s office and a return to state control.

The state corrections department provided a brief written response to Kelso’s report, saying the agency was “pleased” the document noted progress in overall healthcare. The statement said the agency is “working collaboratively” with Kelso’s office “to improve the delivery of care in the” contract prisons.

The GEO Group owns or manages 106 prisons in the United States and other countries, holding 85,000 inmates. It reported revenue of $427 million for the first three months of the year.

Medical staff at the McFarland prison referred calls to the Florida-based company’s corporate offices. A spokesman provided a written statement that the company’s prisons “have always strived to provide high-quality medical services consistent with strict contractual requirements and industry-leading standards.” The company will work with California to “ensure consistent delivery of quality medical services,” the corporate statement said.

The state contract with the GEO Group requires the private prison operator to provide inmates with “essential health care services,” including basic treatment for illnesses and injuries and medication, as well as 24-hour access to emergency medical and mental health care, daily access to nurses, and a primary care provider available at least five days a week. The contract allows the state to seek damages if the prison operator does not meet minimum healthcare staffing requirements.

The corrections department will not seek damages, said spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman. Instead, she said, the agency is asking contract operators to increase the amount of time doctors and nurses are available, while revising training and auditing requirements.